The concept of the unknown brings up different feelings in different people. The uncertainty that accompanies the unknown can be a source of great anxiety and fear. However, it can also be the motivation for curiosity and exploration. The decision to choose one path or the other depends upon a person’s perspective. And, within the same person, there can be conflicting feelings depending upon the situation that person is confronting. But, do fear/anxiety and curiosity/exploration really conflict with one another?

The unknown, and uncertainty for that matter, is no more evident than in the medical field and health. Nothing in medicine is 100%. Disease or illness outcomes, diagnostic testing, treatment modalities, and preventative measures are just some of the elements of medicine and health in which there is much unknown. As much as the medical field knows, there is so much that it doesn’t know. This unknown in medicine can be approached with anxiety and fear, curiosity and exploration, or both simultaneously.

If one approaches the unknown with anxiety and fear, there are consequences that range on a spectrum from positive to negative. Sometimes, anxiety and fear can be protective mechanisms to avoid certain results. This may mean avoiding behaviors that may put one at risk for disease exposure, unnecessary medication usage, and accidental traumas. If one is concerned about suffering a head injury while riding an ATV or avoiding bacterial resistance with unnecessary antibiotic use, fear and anxiety of the unknown may have a positive impact.  However, a proven, new medication or treatment for a particular disease may precipitate an individual’s fear or anxiety about possible unknown side effects because the medication or treatment is new. This fear and anxiety may prevent that person from utilizing that medication or treatment that may result in a worse outcome from their disease than they would have if they had used the therapy. While anxiety and fear of the unknown are not necessarily bad feelings, they do have consequences.

If one approaches the unknown with curiosity and exploration, results range on a spectrum from positive to negative as well. Being curious and exploring the unknown has brought a tremendous number of advances and innovations in medicine and all other aspects of our lives.  Without being curious or exploring the unknown, we would not have solved many questions that we have as human beings. As with anxiety and fear, curiosity and exploration are not without their risks. While the results of being curious and exploring unknown areas of medicine have brought us many victories, they have also brought us failures. Unintended side effects of medications or inaccurate diagnostic testing results are just a couple examples. Humans are imperfect, and their discoveries and answers to questions may not be perfect either. Nevertheless, curiosity and exploration of the unknown are necessary for the advancement of medicine.

One could argue that anxiety and fear, as well as curiosity and exploration, should coexist within every healthcare professional and patient. Each tempers the other and minimizes poor outcomes and unnecessary risk. While anxiety and fear of the unknown can unnecessarily constrain curiosity and exploration, curiosity and exploration of the unknown can push through the hesitancy that is often fostered by fear and anxiety. Anxiety and fear can also be motivating forces to explore the unknown because of the need to find answers or solve problems that cause that anxiety or fear. Additionally, curiosity and exploration can result in fear and anxiety as more questions are answered, and subsequently, the answers precipitate more questions that may be unsettling.

All of these feelings and their results are not mutually exclusive and do not necessarily need to conflict with one another. The only measure of how they negatively or positively affect the medical field and health is how they affect the lives of those involved. The best recipe for successfully addressing the unknown and uncertainty in medicine and health is by walking the delicate balance between fear/anxiety and curiosity/exploration to glean the benefits of both sets of feelings.